If you’re the kind of person who wants to pop in a movie, sit back, and turn off your brain the films of Abbas Kiarostami are not for you. That doesn’t merely mean that his movies are more serious than a popcorn flick, they most certainly are, but it goes beyond that. Kiarostami makes challenging movies that require the viewer to actively engage with them. He doesn’t do this by being visually avant-garde or by making things intolerably slow, at least not when he’s at his best. His films could be called “meta,” in that they have a lot of layers to them that need to be analyzed. This was especially true of his breakthrough 1990 film Close-Up, which was a unique blend documentary and narrative cinema. Part of what made these films so challenging was that if you weren’t interested in unraveling their various ideas there wasn’t much left of interest to carry the films. That is not necessarily the case in his newest film, Certified Copy, which also happens to be his first film made in Europe rather than his native Iran.
The film begins with a British author named James Miller (William Shimell) giving a lecture in Italy about his latest book, “Certified Copy,” which argues that a copy of an artwork can be just as valid as the original work. In the audience at this talk is a French woman (Juliette Binoche) with an eleven year old child, who leaves her number with an associate of Miller’s. The woman invites Miller to her antiques store and the two begin a drive through Tuscany in which they engage in a long conversation, at first about Miller’s theories, but also about art in general, relationships, and the woman’s son. As the conversation goes on the couple begin to talk as if they were husband and wife. Perhaps they are playing roles in these late conversations, getting ideas about marriage and relationships off their chest by acting like they are themselves intimate. Or maybe it’s the opposite; perhaps they are an estranged husband and wife who only acted as strangers in the beginning so they could talk more freely.
The films that instantly come to mind when considering this film’s basic structure are Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walk through Vienna and Paris respectively talking about their lives and seemingly fall in love. Before Sunset in particular, which features older characters and is even sparked by a book tour, seems like it may well have been an inspiration. The comparison shouldn’t be drawn upon too closely though because, in typical Kiarostami fashion, there’s a meta level to be found here. It is no coincidence that this question about whether or not a couple is married is being played out in a film that also deals in questions of whether or not a copy is valid. Are the interactions between these two any more or less valid if they are only pretending to be married? To add a further question to the discussion one must consider that a film itself is in its own way a copy of life, does that make the pretend relationships between the actors any less valid?
One wonders why Abbas Kiarostami felt the need to travel to Europe to make this film. Part of it may have been Iran’s censorship restrictions, which are very strict about how relationships between men and women can be depicted, but I think the real reason he made the film where he did is that he wanted to cast Juliette Binoche. Binoche is amazing here, working in three languages and bringing years of emotional discomfort to the screen throughout the film. Unfortunately I’m not sure that William Shimell’s performance was able to match Binoche’s. Shimell is not an experienced film actor, he’s an Opera singer, and given that he should be given credit for being as good in the film as he was. However, he often comes off as pouty and a bit irrational and I think a lot of that is Shimell’s responsibility. I feel like the film could have taken that extra step into greatness if both of the actors had been on equal footing.
The thing about this movie is that you don’t really need to care about the central question about the value of reproductions in order to enjoy it. The fact that Kiarostami is working with a slightly larger budget and that the film has a number of scenes in the English language don’t hurt, but the heart of what makes the film so much more watchable than Kiarostami’s other films is the relatability of the characters. I’ve struggled a lot with Kiarostami but I didn’t struggle with this movie at all, it was a breath of fresh air.
**** out of Four